In the Manas Banani Food Producers group, for example, women learn to grow mushrooms, pickle local produce and weave textiles for locals and tourists. “Before our group was formed by WWF in 2017, most of us used to graze our cattle in the jungle and we also collected firewood there,” says Dharitri Pathak from Barengabari village. in Manas. Sharmila Basumatary (no relation to Onthai Basumatary) is part of another group called Gungzema which showcases Bodo ethnic cuisine and culture in Barengabari village, serving dishes such as country chicken curry with rice batter , pork and leafy vegetable stew to tourists. In the past, Basumatary recalls, village men hunted wild boar, deer and fish in the forest, not only for themselves, but also for poaching gangs. “We didn’t know then that it was harming our forest,” she says.
While the pandemic years have been slow, Gungzema still earned about Rs 80,000 from his restaurant in 2021; Teron’s group earned roughly the same amount. Equivalent to around $1,000, this is a good side income for members. “Many in our village have started homestays and young people are finding employment in forest lodges and as drivers,” says Basumatary. “For us it’s a huge change and we’re happy that we don’t have to go into the jungle.”
For his part, former poacher Maheshwar Basumatary believes that such initiatives will help wean people off poaching and tree cutting. Indeed, things have changed a lot since 2012, when the Forestry Department reported 22 cases of rhino poaching, and 2013, when the number rose to 41. In 2020, the Forestry Department only recorded two cases. of poaching. And despite killing a rhino on a full moon night in May 2021, police, with help from the Assam Forest Department, caught the gang within months.
But P Sivakumar, field manager of Kaziranga National Park is careful to add that too much emphasis has been placed on reaching out to those who have co-existed with the forest for centuries. “More than these tribes, it is people like us, with our ever-increasing need for highways, hotels, malls, and worse, who need to realize that all this so-called development comes at the cost of jungle, rhinoceros. , and eventually, our future,” he says.